What links a landed Spitfire and a child’s pushchair?

Owen Finlay Maclaren

Not another lock-down quiz question but one of Paul Maddocks’ interesting tales! Paul writes:

I have had a good life, a blessed life you could say, I have met many interesting people and learned many interesting things. One of the first people I met and got to know was in my first job after Art School.

I got a job working for Albert Frosts Printer in Rugby, opposite the famous Rugby School on Dunchurch Road. I was employed in the Art Studio to produce artwork for the various print jobs. The company had already been producing some small flyers for a small company called Andrews Maclaren Limited, just outside Rugby in the village of Barby. They were making folding outdoor chairs and pushchairs. The Maclaren Company wanted to produce some more flyers and upgrade their illustrations.

The founder and owner was Owen Maclaren who was by then retired, but had been an aircraft designer specialising in undercarriages. He had designed the Spitfire landing gear, so he was very famous.

I had only just started at Frosts the Printers in 1969 at the age of 19.  I did not drive and have never owned a car. I caught the Midland Red bus to Rugby every day. So when I had to go out to Barby to meet Owen Maclaren, the Managing Director of Albert Frost, Mr Clements, took me in his Austin Cambridge car.

Mr. Clements looked just like Oliver Hardy, right down to the greased down centre parting. He was a lovely man, very large but very gentle and polite. We must have looked a strange sight when we turned up at the village cottage where Owen lived and worked from his stables. I still had shoulder length hair and was very skinny. We were welcomed and shown into a large dining room with a large dark wooden table with bowls of hazel nuts still with their leaves on, and bowls of apples and pears, which must have come out of his orchard.

Mr. Owen Maclaren welcomed us both and we were introduced to a small, slim older lady, a Miss Andrews, Owen’s partner. She was strangely dressed in a goat skin coat and goat skin boots. The boots were all covered in black and white patches and had long hair. We were served tea in very large cups, the largest cups I have ever seen, more like shallow soup dishes. They looked normal in Mr Clements large swollen hands. We chatted for what seemed like ages then we were taken on a tour of the large farm cottage and stables.

Dotted around the cottage were various prototypes of what Owen had been working on. The first folding outdoor armchair was based on a design he had done for a bomber aircraft undercarriage. He had seen, at various country events, people trying to sit on shooting sticks, a form of walking stick with a fold-down seat but with a single leg. Owen’s answer was what looked like a bundle of sticks that open up and fold out to make a four leg chair with arms and a back and he called it a ‘Gad about chair’.


After making various prototypes, first with wood, then aluminium tubes – and moulding the tubes to form a more curved bundle, he started making them for sale. But they were expensive, almost hand-made and containing a lot of components, so they had to be sold as luxury items and he did this by selling them through Harrods Store. His first order was for about 50 and he had them made with green and white seating cloth. Albert Frost’s had the word Harrods stencilled on the back of every one, making them unique.

We were then shown the very first ‘Baby Buggy’. Almost like a ‘gad about chair’ with wheels on. This had been inspired by Owen’s daughter having problems with pushchairs on aircraft. Owen’s genius was not just putting a wheel on each leg – he put two. Like on large aircraft undercarriages the more wheels the better, for strength, suspension and comfort.


Mr Clements and I had been at the Maclaren residence for nearly an hour and we still did not know what Owen wanted us to do. Then he showed us his latest invention – it was a larger version of the Baby Buggy. He had been asked by the Government’s Health Council to create a larger buggy for children up to the age of 10. He produced a prototype that he was working on, made of square aluminium tubing for strength, and he called it the ‘Buggy Major’.


It had many more features, such as a hand strap around each handle. This was because older children can be very heavy and when tilting the pushchair back your hand could come off or slip away from the handles. There was another strengthening feature to brace the complete chair. But this was becoming a problem as some of the struts, when closed, could trap skin on hands, if not done with care. So I had to draw this prototype as a complete vehicle pointing out all the safety issues as it had to go to the Ministry of Health who were going to order them and supply them to clients. Over time the features were redesigned and each part slowly came to be safer, especially the struts at the back were linked together and a foot active device was added so that hands were kept out of the way.


Another strange thing about the day Mr. Clements took me to Barby was that on the way back, instead of turning at a bend in the country road we drove into a field. The gate had been left open; a farmer had only just opened it up to take in a tractor. Mr. Clements drove around the field and around the tractor, nodded at the farmer and slowly left the field as though nothing had happened. We both smiled like simpletons as though it happened all the time.

I did many drawings of all of the Maclaren products, showing how they opened and folded. None of the drawings survive and I don’t have one of them. But I am sure I could draw every one of them from memory: the ‘Gad about chair’, the ‘Baby Buggy’ and the ‘Buggy Major’. They were all ground-breaking and all came out of the mind of a retired old aircraft under-carriage designer. A bit like from the Bible – ‘and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: Nation shall not lift up sword against Nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.’


Owen Maclaren tried to make as many products as possible, employing most of the people from Barby and Long Buckby. A Japanese company were given the licence to manufacture the production for the American market and Owen became rich overnight. I lost contact with him when I left Albert Frosts the printers. It had been sold to GEC and was being moved to the large GEC factory site down by the station. The old building was going to be pulled down as it was needed for road widening and the industrial building did not fit in with the Rugby School surroundings.

I then went to work in Leamington Spa, then Coventry. I heard that Owen was a keen pilot and he had a heart attack one day while flying his own plane. He was able to land the plane but was found dead in his cockpit. I have never been able to verify this tale but it did fit in with the spirit of Owen Finley Maclaren M.B.E.

As an end-note, I would just mention that one day my girlfriend, now my wife, called for me at the Albert Frosts studio.  I was drawing a ‘Baby Buggy’ – not many people had seen one at that time. Sara said ‘that will never catch on’. I still remind her that it’s now the most produced and copied pushchair in the world.

Paul Maddocks, Deputy Chair of the Coventry Society

The Intriguing Story of Kirby House

Kirby House 16 Little Park Street names 1874
Kirby House, 16 Little Park Street, Coventry

Fifty years ago, Kirby House in Little Park Street Coventry was threatened with demolition. The campaign group that sought to save it became the Coventry Society, enjoying its half centenary this year. As well as saving one of the few high-status town houses of the early Georgian period in the city, they inadvertently saved an important symbol of Coventry’s first steps in its industrial revolution. It is one of the few buildings associated with the origins of Coventry’s silk ribbon weaving industry, together with its near neighbour at 7 Little Park Street, which is still standing.

The traditional history of Coventry states that the silk weaving industry was brought to Coventry by William Bird, Mayor of Coventry in 1705. Whilst recent historians have cast doubt on this assertion, it is indisputable that the Bird family were predominant in the silk and ribbon weaving industry in 18th Century Coventry.

Whilst much remains of the 19th Century weaving history in Coventry, there are very few buildings remaining from the 18th Century. There is the small group of late eighteenth century weavers’ houses in Hill Street, purpose built to house the recently introduced engine loom. All that remains of the hundreds of court houses where most single hand loom weavers would have worked is the short terrace in Spon Street, now occupied by the Watch Museum.

court houses
Weavers Houses, Court 38, Spon Street, Coventry

Amazingly, the most impressive buildings representative of Coventry’s first steps into the industrial revolution are still standing in Little Park Street. These two notable early Georgian town houses, 16 Little Park Street (known since the Victorian period as Kirby House) and 7 Little Park Street (converted in the 1990s to a public house, originally The Varsity, now the Castle Grounds) are the most significant examples of silkmen’s houses from the early eighteenth century, built with the profits of the new industry.

7 Little Park Street, Coventry

Even more exciting is the more recent appreciation that attached to 7 Little Park Street is its contemporary warehouse. This lower status building where the ribbons were stored had an internal door to the house showing how the silkman would have kept a very close eye on his expensive inventory. This ribbon warehouse is not only one of the very earliest in the city, but it is now the only one.

Various historians from Mary Dormer Harris to Nikolas Pevsner quote a ‘legend’ that three brothers competed to build the most beautiful house in the city and the one judged to be the best would be paid for by the other two. Each was supposed to employ a different architect although it was also claimed that each house was designed by the Smith brothers of Warwick. The three houses were supposedly 7 and 16 (Kirby House) Little Park Street and 11 Priory Row, all still standing today.

11 Priory Row

The identity of the brothers is not given but there is a strong case to be made that they were silkmen of the Bird family.

Of the two Little Park Street properties Kirby House has the best claim to being a Smith building. A recent definitive study of Smith’s work repeats the legend of the brothers’ houses. It broadly supports the idea that Kirby House was designed by Smith, estimating a date of construction of around 1725. It is rather more scathing about the quality of the design of 7 Little Park Street considering it ‘much more provincial’.

Pevsner suggests a similar ‘early Georgian’ date for both Kirby House and 7 Little Park Street but suggests the latter is ‘one of the most splendid in the county’! A plausible explanation of the brothers’ story could be made around the houses being built by William Bird’s two sons, Richard and Thomas. It may even be possible to stretch the facts to suggest the involvement of a third Bird brother, John, in another house in the same street.

If these impressive buildings were all built at the same time, in the same street, and being the first in Coventry to use the new ‘Warwickshire Baroque’ style popularised by Smith of Warwick, it would have made a profound impression on the locals. The houses’ fashionable brick built construction would have provided a stark contrast to the traditional timber framed Elizabethan style most common in the city. This would be a clear demonstration to the city of the commercial success of the family using the most fashionable architecture.

Although the earliest deeds for Kirby House do not survive there is strong evidence that could lead to the conclusion it was built for William Bird’s eldest son Richard. He had been in partnership with his father since 1712 and from his will it is clear his father had passed on much of his property during his lifetime. Richard would have had the wealth to build the house and at the time of his death in 1725, he was living in Little Park Street, leaving the house to his nephew, George Cotton.

It was not stated exactly where in the street the building lay but it is clear that by 1771 when his brother John made his will it had come into his possession. He states, ‘I give and devise that messuage or tenement in Little Park Street aforesaid in the said city of Coventry wherein my late brother Richard formerly dwelt and the gardens thereunto adjoining and belonging, the larger of the said gardens was formerly an orchard which belonged to the messuage or tenement in High Street’. The reference to the garden relating to the building in High Street locates the house on the west side of Little Park Street. Furthermore, the garden was originally part of the building in the High Street belonging to his father and can be seen on the 1851 Board of Health map to connect to 16 Little Park Street. This would suggest the house was built for Richard just before his death in 1725.

The link between 7 Little Park Street and Thomas Bird is much clearer. In his will of 1745 he refers to his ‘dwelling house, lately erected with the warehouses and appurtenances thereto belonging’. ‘Recently erected’ is a rather loose term and its date of construction is generally agreed to be early eighteenth century. He bought the land for £105 in1720 and so it could have been constructed any time after this.

He had also bought a piece of land on the opposite side of the road in 1729. When the whole property passed out of the family in 1763 for £600, a slightly fuller picture is given of a ‘messuage, warehouse etc. on west side of Little Park Street, and coachhouse and stable on the east side of Little Park Street belonging to the messuage. The premises were late newly erected by Thomas Bird who occupied them until he died’. If the brothers’ story has any validity he would have built his house soon after buying the land in 1720, around the time Kirby House was being erected. It also broadly fits the estimated time of construction from those who are judging it purely stylistically.

It may be possible to conclude a more precise year of 1724 for the construction of both Little Park Street properties based on the Great Meeting House account book for 1714-1730. All pew rents were collected half yearly and the council ward noted for each individual. Until that date the only member of the Bird family making payments was William who had a whole pew and was noted as living in Broadgate and Bayley Lane ward which would include his house and business premises in High Street. In March 1724, Richard Bird paid pew rent for the first time and in September 1724, Thomas starts paying for a pew. Both brothers are given as living in Earl Street Ward, which included Little Park Street. If both houses were completed in that year and they were now living independently of their father, having their own pew would confirm their new status as property owners. Independence would be particularly important to Thomas who was recently married.

Great Meeting House Coventry Sidney Bunney 1922
The Great Meeting House – drawn by Sidney Bunney

Who might the third brother be and where was the third house? John Bird was older than Thomas and had a career more prestigious and even more lucrative than any of his brothers, partly due to his longer life, including representing Coventry as an MP in 1734. Such status would have required a prestigious base at the very time his brothers were planning or building their own Little Park Street properties.

Unfortunately, evidence of such a building, if it existed, cannot be found.  However, Kirby House did eventually come into John Bird’s hands by the time of his 1771 will leaving it to his grandson, William Wilberforce Bird. William was to become a silkman like his namesake great grandfather, and a Coventry MP like his grandfather, but he also ended the last link of members of the Bird family to Coventry’s silk trade with his bankruptcy in 1805.

It is fortunate, given their close shave with survival in the post-war period that two of the original silkmen’s residences have survived intact, at least in their facades. The presence of these remarkable early Georgian mansions in Little Park Street. should act as a constant reminder of the historical associations they represent.

This article is extracted from “Lies, Damn Lies, and the Eighteenth Century Coventry Ribbon Industry” by Coventry Society member David Fry which is to be published later in the year.

Recent Discoveries at the Charterhouse


Archaeologists working on the £8m restoration of The Charterhouse have uncovered rare 14th century remains that shed new light on life in historic Coventry.

The Grade I listed former Carthusian Monastery, which once restored will be a major new heritage attraction, is proving to be one of the richest sites for discoveries in the West Midlands in recent years as works are uncovering layers of history.

The Prior’s House and Refectory of the monastery, which was founded in 1385, remain today and have the only intact interiors of any Carthusian building in the UK. The church, monks’ cells and chapter house were demolished in the Dissolution, although some 400m of tall stone precinct walls remain.

Now, archaeologists have discovered additional Elizabethan wall decoration inside the Prior’s House and, beneath later Victorian coverings, a likely monastic tiled floor which is made up of patterns and vivid colours found in tiles elsewhere on the site and made locally in the Middle Ages by Coventry’s substantial tile industry.

The tiles, and a 14th century arch also just discovered, are in a passageway along which a few selected visitors were invited into the monastic settlement. Careful conservation could bring this space back to its full medieval context.


David Mahony, the Conservation Architect at PCPT Architects, said:

“The discovery of more wall decoration on the first floor suggests that, when the monastery was converted into a house in the 1570s, large parts of the walls were decorated in black and white patterns and caricatures in a style very popular at that time.

“External excavations have been done in a piecemeal way in the past and this left an incomplete picture of what the monastery was originally like. Carthusian monasteries were built to a fairly standard layout which has enabled a best guess, but we are now starting to fill in the gaps. We recently uncovered remains of a substantial stone building which looks very likely to be the Chapter House and it is exactly where it should be.

“The team believe these are some of the most exciting recent archaeological discoveries in the region.”

Historic Coventry Trust is working in partnership with Coventry City Council and the local community on the £8 million project to restore one of Coventry’s oldest buildings, which is located off London Road near the city centre. The restoration is a major part of £30m of investment in the city’s heritage for Coventry’s tenure as UK City of Culture in 2021.


The Charterhouse has been a real hot bed of discovery for archaeologists from University of Leicester Archaeological Services, architects PCPT and conservation contractors Splitlath, who have been excavating the inner precinct area of the monastery and restoring the Prior’s House. The works are funded by the National Heritage Lottery Fund, Historic England and donations from several Trusts & Foundations.

The visitor attraction is due to open in the spring of 2021 and will include interpretative displays which explain the lives of the Carthusian monks, their cultural importance and influence, as well as the later Elizabethan conversion to a house during Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester’s ownership.

Two of the original eleven monks’ cells that lined The Great Cloister will be reconstructed on their original foundations. One will show how the monks lived and the other will be an acoustically insulated room exploring the concept of silence – the Carthusians were the only monastic order to live in strict silence.

The project is being funded by the National Heritage Lottery Fund, Coventry City Council, Historic England and a number of Trusts and Foundations.

Our thanks to the Historic Coventry Trust for this story – you can sign up for their newsletter on the home page.

Creating a Different Vision for Coventry


Post the coronavirus crisis we will all wish for ‘normality’, a return to the reassurance of the way things have been. But though we might want a return to the known and familiar, the setbacks and the despair of the covid-19 crisis should make us hope that change is in the air. That something better is possible. We surely cannot be desperate to return to a society troubled by inequality, anxious about climate change, confused about migration and unclear as to where we go after leaving the EU – and with cities at the mercy of developers rather than providing the environments and facilities that residents want.

The conditions we are experiencing in ‘lockdown’ have helped us glimpse the future, and have made people recognise the opportunities for change. A ‘new normal’ is possible. This may embrace opportunities to improve air quality and reduce car dependency, and tackle the issues of decline in urban centres.

But the window is likely to be small before external circumstances close in. There will inevitably be pressures from Government and business on society and local authorities to ‘get back to normal’. But this crisis – and the twin fears of returning to our bad old ways and of the poverty that may affect us all (in terms of welfare and prosperity) as we seek to recover from an unprecedented recession – should be the prompt for us to reassess our priorities. In our lifetimes we will never get a better chance to consider how we can make a future better than the past.

In the face of the crisis, Andrew Cuomo, Governor of New York, has said recently “What have we learnt, how do we improve, and how do we build back better?” The current situation with all its possibilities and terrifying uncertainties presents Coventry with the opportunity to re-think our vision for the city – what kind of place do we, the residents, want it to be?

We cannot predict what change will come (though we may have ideas). No particular urban future is inevitable. But the Covid 19 crisis is expanding our economic imagination – the possibilities open to society. So Coventry’s future story – its reality – is up for grabs. We can seek to influence changes that will make Coventry better – and have a more sustainable future – rather than have whatever is forced on us by external circumstances.

The Coventry Society campaigns for a city of better quality; of appropriate amenities; of diversity and distinctiveness in retail and culture and where heritage is protected and valued. Let us now have a city-wide discussion about what we want to achieve in these areas post-lockdown, about how we can “build back better.”

Some Ideas

Covid 19 and our reaction to it through drastically curtailed economic and social activities in the lockdown will lead onto significant changes to our behaviour, affecting, fundamentally, our economy and society. As a stimulus to thinking, here are three things that we could change:

Traffic and air quality
Coventry’s Local Air Quality Plan (LAQP), in consultation to secure a grant of £24,5M, is a vital current adjunct to Coventry’s acknowledged leadership among local authorities in climate change action. But the pace of change is moving so quickly in this area (vis Grant Shapps announcements of resources for urban active travel measures) that while the LAQP’s provisions for more cycling, greening some of the bus fleet, and highway improvements at NO2 blackspots are laudable and necessary, a debate is to be had as to how much further we should go in the city.

Photo – Coventry Telegraph

We could go beyond easing traffic congestion to restrictions on car use to further improve air quality, create safer streets, and make a greater contribution to the City’s Climate Change Action Plan. Here, the proposed ‘Engagement Programme’ of the LAQP – aimed at exploring with businesses, schools and communities the opportunities for promoting active travel (i.e. reducing local car journeys through encouraging walking, cycling and public transport use) provides the city with the opportunity of engaging in the debate and identifying our desired outcomes.

We might also wish to consider promoting an ambitious greening / tree planting
programme as an adjunct to the LAQP in order to further enhance the city’s air quality.

Screen Shot 2020-04-27 at 18.12.00

City Centre
Changes in the city centre in recent years have focussed on improving the physical environment while seeking to improve the centre’s retail offer. While succeeded on the former the persistent decline in city centre footfall has seen a loss of retail floorspace (recently, dramatically with IKEAs closure) with more to be expected given the effects of prolonged shop closures and increased on-line purchases during lockdown.

What is the future of City Centre South?

Effects too will be felt in the city centre’s pubs, bars and restaurants. Prospects for the City Centre South redevelopment look the poorer. Similarly, home working in the lockdown has caused concern for the future of traditional office floorspace – in Coventry this must threaten the marginal economics of the Friargate development by the station.

To add to worries, there must be fears that Coventry University’s expansion in the city centre and the attendant student housing developments will be slowed in the face of reduced income, not least from the loss of fees from overseas students. In such difficult and unfavourable circumstances the current coronavirus crisis presents a challenge of reshaping city centres.

Will the virus impact on the demand for new student accommodation?

There is a debate to be had about the Coventry city centre we want/are able to have in the future. Arguably, this may be a city centre of greater diversity, meeting the needs of residents through more shops of modest rental targeted at small, diverse, independent retailers, with a food and drink offer to attract residents and visitors, with significant new social housing. The Councils latest Strategic Housing Market Assessment shows a need for an additional 12,000 affordable houses by 2031. Any new health and leisure facilities could be located in the accessible city centre in a reversal of recent trends.

Culture, leisure and recreation

The lockdown has suspended so many of the culture and leisure activities that we formerly took for granted: theatre, cinema, libraries, museums, music venues, watching and taking part in sport. Given the devastating effects on revenues and on cultural and arts organisations and independent artists and professionals, will public and charitable resources be sufficient to support their meaningful re-opening? When and how will audiences in Coventry appreciate the thrill and inspiration of seeing and hearing performances and events and experiencing works of art up close?

Conversely, we have come to appreciate the vital importance of our City’s parks and greenspaces for the mental and physical well-being of individuals and families. The Covid 19 crisis has sharply focussed all of our minds on the health and wellbeing agenda and the free time that people have found themselves with under lockdown has led to a surge in walking, cycling, running and we should take positive steps to maintain the momentum that has developed. Yet Coventry has more to lose than most, given our  anticipation of the investments for City of Culture 2021. Will the resources of Culture Coventry survive the inevitable re-prioritisation of Government arts and culture funding?

Will the Council have resources other than for the most basic maintenance of our parks?

Given the recent and current investments in our cultural heritage at the Old Grammar School, St. Mary’s Guildhall, Drapers Hall, the Burges and Charterhouse can these be used to help the city recover through the attraction of more and varied leisure and conference visitors and hosting events? And will a national appreciation of the importance of urban parks lead to the additional resources that will secure the effective implementation of the City’s recent Greenspace Strategy? These are serious issues on which the city needs to encourage engagement to ‘build back better’.

What next?

The Coventry Society has a passion for Coventry and a commitment to a positive change. This passion is shared by each and every member of our Society. In this spirit we ask:

  • Do you agree that we need a different vision for the city moving forward into the post-Covid era?
  • What changes would you like to see, both in terms of our strategic approach and in
    terms of specific ideas and proposals that might make a real difference?
  • How do we secure as wide a range of partners and as wide an engagement as possible to develop a new vision for the city?
  • How do we build a consensus for a different approach?
  • How would we secure political support for a new approach?

This discussion document has been published by the Coventry Society Committee. We would love to know what you think!

The Quakers in Coventry


George Fox – founder of the Quaker Movement

Quakers (The Religious Society of Friends) began with a Leicestershire weaver’s son, George Fox, who was born in Fenny Drayton in 1624. Fox’s Journal mentions his five visits to Coventry, four of them during the years of the English Civil War. In the mid-1640s he ‘took a chamber for a while at a professor’s house’ in Coventry (a ‘professor’ being someone who publicly professed Christianity). In 1645 he came again, to visit a Dr Cradock, so as to have a serious conversation. This was disastrously unsuccessful as Fox accidentally trod on a flower bed and Dr Cradock flew into ‘a rage, as if his house had been on fire’.

Fox also recorded an important insight that he had ‘about the beginning of the year 1646’ as he was nearing the city gate (presumably the Cook Street Gate). In 1649 he visited prisoners in Coventry gaol, ‘Ranters’ who had been imprisoned because of their religion. Then, when he visited Coventry in 1655, he ‘found the people closed up with darkness’ and, worst of all, his former host ‘was drunk, which grieved me so that I did not go into any house in the town, but rode into some of the streets and into the market-place’.

By 1668, however, many Coventrians had become Quakers and they purchased a burial ground just outside the Hill Street gate. As Charles II had ordered the walls to be breached in 1662, there was probably plenty of good stone waiting to be repurposed. To my inexpert eye it looks as if some of this was incorporated in the front wall of what is the present Quaker Meeting House garden.

Near the back wall (which divides the site from the former Meeting House on Lower Holyhead Road) are four stone slabs. One of these re-positioned gravestones is Joseph Cash’s. Together with his brother John, he founded Cash’s, the company that survived the 1860 crash in the silk ribbon market to produce woven silk pictures and millions of name tapes.

Cash’s Topshops

Like George Cadbury in Birmingham, the Cash brothers were Quaker philanthropists. In 1843, along with Charles Bray, Joseph Cash co-founded the Coventry Labourers’ and Artisans’ Friendly Society to provide allotments for working people and he also set up a small school. Cash’s three-storey weavers’ houses on Kingfield Road still survive – as does the Cash’s brand, thanks to the Hong Kong-based global Jointak Group Limited.

Professor Eleanor Nesbitt, CovSoc member